The book that paid a ransom
Gazing down at the clear, graceful words on the pages of a 900-year-old book, I was drawn deep into the past. I thought of the monk who wrote them and the tragedy that would soon end his young life. “Mael Muire, grandson of Conn of the Poor, was murdered on the floor of the cathedral of Clonmacnoise by plunderers.” The sudden death of the Irish scribe is recorded in monastery records for the year 1106. Little could Mael Muire ever have foreseen the lasting significance his book would achieve.
My research to find the earliest European stories to emerge out of the Dark Ages led me to the Royal Irish Academy and the manuscript called Lebor na hUidre, the Book of the Dun Cow. This is the oldest known manuscript of Irish stories, but I discovered it is even more valuable than that, in part because it preserves stories of pre-Christian Ireland dating back to the eighth century. But how this book of ancient lore survived against all odds is a compelling tale of its own. It is a chronicle of a saint and castles, politics and wars that spans nine centuries and ends with the present day library in Dublin.
The journey begins, though, with an order of monks and with the scribe, Mael Muire. As I studied the manuscript, I thought of him working for long hours in his monastery’s scriptorium, carefully transcribing this text from older books. Many days it must have been bitter cold as he worked, not stopping until it was too dark to continue. I also imagined him with his writing supplies in a pack on his back, walking great distances from one monastery to another to copy stories. Very likely, Mael Muire was a teenager as were many of the scribes.
At that time, as repositories of wealth the Irish monasteries were constant targets of brutal raids by feuding clans, who looted buildings, stole and burned books, and murdered monks. In 1178 the manuscript’s library would be completely destroyed by the Normans, but by then the Book of the Dun Cow had been whisked away to a castle in Donegal. What saved this book while others were lost over the turbulent centuries was the name assigned to it. ‘The Dun Cow’ referred to a sacred relic, the hide of a dun-coloured cow connected with a beloved sixth-century saint, Ciarán. During these superstitious times some believed that the manuscript’s vellum was itself the relic, capable of miracles and possessing the power to appeal directly to God.
The book became prized plunder in battles between warring clans. On one occasion, it was used as a ransom when kidnappers captured the son of an important family member from the Donegal castle. It is hard now to conceive of a book being of such value that it could be a ransom payment for a human life! For centuries the manuscript shifted from one royal house to another, and then it disappeared into the hands of private antiquarians, its location unknown until it resurfaced, now bereft of many of its pages, in a collection of manuscripts sold to the Royal Irish Academy in 1844. Considering how important this text was during the Middle Ages and still is today, the great irony is that it remains relatively unknown. One reason for its obscurity is that, as a book, it has never been translated from Middle Irish into English.
But perhaps the charm of this book is that it has remained obscure and inaccessible. A number of the tales from the Book of the Dun Cow have been translated, however, and can be tracked down in collections of the ancient Irish myths and sagas. These are strange stories of adventures involving the supernatural, of encounters with fairies, and of voyages, not to far-off lands but to places beyond the real world altogether. We meet figures such as a druid fighting off an enchantment with spells, a queen transformed into a swan, a fairy woman in a glass boat, and a giant grinding a man between his palms like a millstone.
Drawn heavily from a pagan past, all of the tales portray the richness of the early Irish imagination with its unique sense of the marvellous and the magical. Although these stories might seem old and alien to modern readers, in some aspects they are eerily familiar, with their spells, magic wands, shape-changing enchantments, mermaids, fairies, and giants, all features of storytelling traditions so old they fade away into prehistory. Indeed, it was these very themes that inspired me to include selections from Mael Muire’s manuscript in my own book on mythology and fairy tales, Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination. For me, the true value of the manuscript lies in the rare glimpses its pages offer into a culture long lost and forgotten.
Jan Beveridge, who was a rare books librarian, is now an independent researcher living in Ontario. She is the author of Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).
The detail from the Book of the Dun Cow is included in this post by permission of the Royal Irish Academy © RIA.
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by © Simon Hadleigh-Sparks – Simon and his Camera.